orthern Kentucky has seen a rapid rise in the Latino population over the past five years. The 2000 census showed a 3 percent Spanish-speaking population. This is a baseline estimate but may not represent the actual growth. This number is representative of the documented persons who did not fear supplying information about themselves. It is estimated the Latino population is actually 9 percent, based on the student population in the Boone County School System. In fact, there are 27 different languages being spoken in the homes of students in the school system.
Because of this increasing population, Northern Kentucky University invited various agencies in Florence and in Boone County to form a group to discuss building bridges into the Hispanic community. Participating agencies decided to pursue several approaches to improve their communication with constituents who speak limited English. Police officials knew of two obvious problems concerning the Latino population: the language barrier and some immigrants' ignorance of the laws. But they soon discovered other, deeper problems.
Administrators from the schools, service providers, and other government agencies agreed to modify some procedures to handle issues with Latinos, and they recognized a need to expose the Latino community to ways to adjust to their new home in Kentucky.
Working with the Boone County Schools, the county's faith community, and Northern Kentucky University, police agreed to cover topics that would keep the new Latino immigrant from unknowingly violate the laws. This would lessen the burden on the court system and would help keep immigrants out of trouble.
The Latino Academy Is Different
The Florence Police Department developed the Latino Academy, a type of citizens' academy tailored to the needs of the area's Latinos. The first problem to overcome was immigrants' reluctance to attend the academy. The department had to reach out to the community leaders and the faith community to assure the immigrants that it was safe to attend and that the police would not be checking their immigration status. The faith community and Latino community leadership was directly responsible for lowering the level of fear. Without their help, the academy would not have been possible.
The concept of the Latino Academy would be similar to the department's citizens' academy, but it quickly differed in many ways. The Latino Academy required police officers to work with people who did not have a basic knowledge of the laws and customs of the United States and to make recent immigrants familiar with what they needed to know and do to lead a productive life.
A key component of the academy was a basic introduction to U.S. government and the history of U.S. policing. Instructors also covered legal issues and items of specific concern such as domestic violence and substance abuse.
But officers soon learned that participants in the Latino Academy faced obstacles that police hadn't been aware of. New immigrants were not able to open a bank account, for instance, or obtain a driver's license because they did not have a social security number. Some were being scammed by thieves who threatened immigrants with deportation because of their immigration status. Others were reluctant to attempt to purchase a house because they feared being deported and losing everything. Immigrant parents could not accompany their children on a school field trip because it is impossible to complete the required background check without a social security number. These were clearly big sources of concern to Florence's Latino community.
Facing the Additional Issues
The success of this Latino Academy was phenomenal, but it has only begun to meet the needs of the community. Since the first academy, the program has increased from the original three weeks to seven weeks to cover topics requested by the students.
The academy has branched off into finding ways of getting more involved with children in the schools, to serving on domestic violence committees, and to working with health care providers. This academy has opened many doors and built many bridges between the Latino community and the Florence Police Department.
The Florence Police Department has learned that criminal issues are not the only ones facing police agencies today. While law enforcement may be the primary duty, police leaders must be keenly aware of the needs of the community. The basic needs must be met, or problems occur.
Florence has also become aware of the issues facing the Latino community. Things most citizens do not even consider, or think about, are very important issues to the immigrant community. Immigrants' inability to obtain a driver's license, for instance, has led police to work with members of the legislature to look at modifying the law.
Police have also begun working such organizations as the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association to bring to light the cultural issues associated with abuse and working with service providers to address public health matters, to get information to immigrants during emergencies or disasters, and create broadcast news programs entirely in Spanish.
Florence plans to involve Latino Academy graduates with the department's volunteer unit to work in the Latino community. The graduates will work to find the problems or issues that concern the Latinos, and then bring those issues to the department's leadership to work towards a solution. This is considered a necessary step to reaching a community that is reluctant to seek assistance from government.
All this hard work has already paid off, but this is only beginning. The more the department works in the Latino community, the more work there is to do. The issues may not be directly related to the traditional role of law enforcement, but it does concern the quality of life of the new immigrants citizens. ■